In Uganda, a country of 33 million people, Frank Mugisha advocates against the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would make homosexual activity punishable by life in prison or, in some cases, death.
In 2007, Mr. Mugisha was chosen to lead Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of LGBTI human rights organizations. As a result of his public advocacy, Mr. Mugisha has lost jobs, friends and has become estranged from members of his family. A close colleague at SMUG, David Kato, was brutally murdered in his home after being outed in a local newspaper. Undeterred by threats of violence, Frank Mugisha continues to amplify the aspirations of Uganda’s most vulnerable communities. In 2011, Frank Mugisha received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
“BECOMING AN ACTIVIST WAS A GRADUAL PROCESS FOR ME. EVERY TIME I MET A UGANDAN PERSON AND WAS ABLE TO CHANGE HIS MIND ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY, IT MADE ME WANT TO CONTINUE. I HAVE TO WORK VERY HARD AND SPEAK OUT TO MAKE A CHANGE. MAYBE OUT OF 33 MILLION UGANDANS I CAN REACH SEVEN. MAYBE AT SOME POINT I CAN REACH 15 MILLION. AND MAYBE YEARS TO COME, SOMEONE WILL PICK UP FROM WHERE I LEFT OFF.”
I was six or seven years old when I realized I was attracted to people of my own sex. I thought I was alone. There were all sorts of bad names for homosexuals. But the way people talked wasn’t relating to who I was. I am a good person. I could not tell anyone for the fear that I would get all the bad names. As my understanding grew, I would see people expelled from school for rumors of being homosexuals. When the expelled students went home, their fathers threatened to kill them, or their families threw them out of the house. Sometimes the expelled student would be sent to live with grandparents in the village and do farming. His education ended. My fear increased.
I had so many dreams. I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. If I got kicked out of school, I could never become a lawyer or a doctor. I decided that I would never tell anyone. So I tried to t in and be like my other colleagues. I tried to change myself. I would pray to God. It wasn’t working. At 14, I decided to tell someone because I couldn’t keep it in anymore. I only told friends who were very close to me, but I lost very many friends. And the rumor was spread in school that I was a homosexual. The disciplinary committee asked me if I was a homosexual. I couldn’t say yes or no. I just went quiet and cried. So they told me to bring my parent.
I didn’t tell my mother that I was a homosexual. I told her that the school thinks I am a homosexual. She didn’t ask me anything. She came to school, and I was excused from the meeting. When they called me back into the meeting, the school said that my discipline track record was the best. I was also a prefect so I was excused. I felt good about it. Now they know and they didn’t expel me. So I can still go on and tell people. I told my brother, and he just laughed about it. And for me that was good. But he didn’t keep quiet. He started telling everyone.
A year later my mother took me to talk to a religious leader in Uganda, and he started quoting verses in the bible. The things he was telling me, strange things, were not relating to me at all. I wanted someone to tell me something that relates to what I am feeling inside. I told my mom that I wish I was made out of bricks because bricks are there, and no one hurts them—bricks just build houses. Why didn’t God create me into something that is never harassed? Why do I have to endure all this? I believe in God. I can recite the rosary from my head. I am not being rebellious or committing sins. This is happening to me because I have no control over it.
That is the reason I tried so hard to change myself. Because I believed homosexuality could be a sin. A friend said that I was going to go to hell. And I thought to myself, what should I do to change this?
When I started understanding that I cannot change myself and that I loved my religion, I decided not to listen to people. What they were telling me wasn’t what I felt inside. At some point I thought that maybe prayer was affecting me, so I stopped praying. But it was very difficult to wake up one morning and wash religion out of my head. I am what I am and that’s it.
Becoming an activist was a gradual process for me. Every time I met a Ugandan person and was able to change his mind about homosexuality, it made me want to continue. I have to work very hard and speak out to make a change. Maybe out of 33 million Ugandans I can reach seven. Maybe at some point I can reach 15 million. And maybe years to come, someone will pick up from where I left off. But at least I have paved the avenue to understanding.
Just appearing on television in Uganda and speaking out helps many people accept themselves. They know they are not alone in the world. They know there is a voice out there for them. That is where I get my courage: knowing that every day of my life, every minute of my life, I make a very small difference, but that small difference has a huge impact on so many different people.
For activists like myself the Ugandans are our biggest threats. The moment you come out and say you are gay in Uganda, the discrimination begins. Friends and family reject you. Employers throw you out of your job. You never know who is going to harass you, bully you, attack you in the streets, or even arrest you. I can’t go shopping. I don’t know if it is safe to use public transportation. Before I leave my house I have to calculate – will I be safe? Should I go anywhere or should I just stay home? Everyday someone will call me to say a friend has been arrested or beaten or thrown out of his house for being gay.
There are many homosexuals who have been arrested in Uganda and tortured while in jail. People have been beaten on the streets. Villagers break into houses of suspected homosexuals and beat the person up or take him to prison and tell the authorities he’s a homosexual. Lesbian girls are raped by their own relatives. The family will ask an uncle to rape the girl and teach her to be a woman. The girl will be raped almost every night. And some girls have to leave their families because they can’t live there anymore and run away, maybe in the middle of the night, run off to nowhere, to the streets.
There is discrimination when gay men seek out health care services. I lost a friend who was living with HIV. He died in a hospital. But the reason he died was because he was afraid to tell the doctors he was gay. If he told the doctors they would leave him alone and not talk to him. If he told his family, they would not help him. He was in the hospital alone, so I talked to the doctors so they would give him the right medication. But the reaction wasn’t good. He was put off the bed to the floor. If it wasn’t for the fear and the stigma, he wouldn’t have died.
One of the reasons we do activism and create visibility is to try and stop the media from outing people. If the media want our faces, we’re here. We’ll show our faces and tell you the truth about our sexuality. But stop outing people who are not ready to be out. A tabloid newspaper called Red Pepper started outing people. They named people and included their home addresses and places where they worked. But the worst was a Ugandan tabloid called Rolling Stone which published names and photos with headlines that homosexuals need to be killed. When the article came out, almost everyone who appeared in the paper was harassed. We had to stop it. We asked and begged the media to respect people, but they refused. So we took them to court. Fortunately, the court ruled that publishing the names of people who are perceived to be homosexual is an invasion of privacy. Rolling Stone keeps publishing articles filled with misinformation, but they can’t publish names and pictures anymore.
My colleague, David Kato, was murdered after his picture was published in the paper. Murdered in his home in his own bed at night. No one knows who did it or why. I think about it all the time. David once told me that he couldn’t live if he wasn’t doing activism. I don’t know if I would live if I wasn’t doing activism. I go through a lot of challenges, and all those images come back to me. I am driven by the images. I am driven by the stories of the people I’ve met. I want to see change happen within the next few hours.